The price of breakneck development?

One of Beijing’s better maintained canals (near Dongzhimen) after the July flood – no damage here.

The mayor and vice mayor of Beijing resigned this morning, after flooding caused by torrential rains killed 37 people in the city and its outskirts on July 21. Here is the People Daily’s report on it, carried by news portal Sina.com: Mayor Guo Jinlong and Vice Mayor Ji Lin resign(in Chinese).

Rumors on the Chinese Internet today say the real death toll from the floods is much higher than the official count of 37.

McClatchy Newspapers reporter Tom Lasseter filed an article, published in several American newspapers, about the death toll of the floods, and popular questioning of the government response to this and other disasters. The article covers a range of opinions, although most of them tend to back up the idea that the flood has decreased trust in the government; that includes me, I am quoted on the subject of the Internet adding to public misgivings about the leaders.

Funnily enough, the headline chosen for the article, at least the headline chosen by the Lexington Herald-Leader, insinuates a much more perilous situation for the government in China than I believe exists, and is completely opposite to what the article quotes me as saying:

My quote: “Living in China has always meant having to learn to tolerate a certain amount of mendacity on the part of the government. This is nothing new.”

Lexington Herald-Leader headline “Doubts about death toll from Beijing-area rain fuel new suspicions about China’s leaders.”

I really don’t believe there are any new suspicions that have been caused by the deadly effects of the storm. Public cynicism is well entrenched. Although there are angry voices on the Internet complaining about the government’s handling of the flood and its causes, there seems — to me at least — to be much less anger at the government than there was last year after the Wenzhou high speed train crash, which had a similar death toll (around 40 in Wenzhou, depending on whose numbers you believe).

One reason for the lower levels of outrage may be that the flood was caused by an observable natural phenomenon — anyone in Beijing on July 21 will have seen and probably been soaked by the torrential rains. There may have been underinvestment in rainwater drainage systems, but this is perhaps understandable in a city as dry as Beijing — sitting on the edge of northern deserts and with no river running through it.

Personally, I don’t see how such disasters can be avoided if China’s continues it breakneck urban development. Beijing had a population of around ten million people and almost no private cars in 1990. There are now around twenty million people, maybe more, in the greater Beijing area, and they are all driving around on brand new roads, lined by brand new skyscrapers as well as shoddily constructed buildings that are just biding their time before demolition. Despite the economic gloom of the last two years, construction continues apace in Beijing. It’s just too fast for it all to be safe.

I do not expect the disaster of the 2012 Beijing flood to be investigated thoroughly. After all there has not yet been an open, public investigation of the Wenzhou high speed train crash. The best outcome that a realist could hope for is that the Beijing government puts its considerable energy and resources behind the following:

1. Fixing up the drainage systems and other waterworks
This includes the sadly neglected system of canals and moats, some parts of which date back to the Yuan dynasty. Most of these canals are currently stinking creeks that do not appear to be integrated with the city’s rain water drainage system.

Worth noting, from The Shanghai Daily:

Beijing Drainage Group blames planners for flooding

Xinhua said it was embarrassing that many ancient drainage systems still worked and that cities had to rely on these “antiques” to resist the floods.

In a royal palace near the capital’s Beihai Park, the roads were never submerged under waist-deep water thanks to drainage systems built in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

Nine wells inside the palace collect the rain and link to an underground river which surrounds the palace and flows to the then city moat. In addition, the paving was laid in such a way that rainfall could easily find its way into the soil beneath, Xinhua said.

Many other historic places, including Tian’anmen Square and the Temple of Heaven, have the similar system and weren’t submerged.

Below is a photo of one of Beijing’s old canals, the day after the storm. Note the complete lack of flood damage.

2. Attention to other disasters that could befall Beijing, especially earthquake
A rain storm that lasted less than 24 hours killed 37 or more people in the capital of the world’s aspiring number one. That is not a good portent for what would happen if a serious earthquake struck the city.

One wonders what plans the city fathers have for such an emergency.

More on the flood and Chinese media reactions to it on Danwei: The Beijing deluge.

Advertisements

Feedback from Danwei readership

The Beijing-based photographer Jonah Kessel is a friend of mine. He also built the current Danwei.com website, and is a regular contributor, see for example:

Photos of northern Yunnan
Tricycle water calligraphy
What do people buy from corner stores in China?
• Series of videos on traditional Chinese musical instruments: erhu, zhongruan, pipa, Chinese drums and dizi, guzheng

I would say that the nature of our collaboration is rather obvious if looking at any of the above. If that is not enough, every page on Danwei.com also notes the following: “Many of the videos and images on this site are by Jonah Kessel, a photographer and filmmaker based in Beijing.” In other words, Jonah is major contributor to the site.

Anyhow, today I received the following email which made me laugh out loud. Jonah received a similar message.

From:Nomen Nescio nobody@dizum.com

Dear Mr. Goldkorn,

As a closeted homosexual expat in Beijing, I just wanted to say that your relationship with Jonah M. Kessel is very inspiring. I think it’s sweet how you are always promoting him on your Danwei website. You are both an inspiration to me and other gay foreigners in China, and I hope someday I can be as brave and open about my boyfriends as you two are. Thank you!

Got to love the Internet. Mr Nomen Nescio is probably an under-employed photographer.

Distracting the public

The Chen Guangcheng affair barely made a ripple in the Chinese media, and the Chinese Internet has been almost completely cleansed of postings about him, aside from some frothing on websites such as the English Global Times (see links at bottom of this post for examples). Some of Chen’s supporters in China still have his image as their avatar on social media websites; Chinese journalists and activists continue to follow news about him, but he has been effectively purged from the media diet of the broad masses.

The de facto expulsion of Al Jazeera English service correspondent Melissa Chan from China likewise has not made any headlines in this country, nor caused concern to any numbers of people outside of media circles. Again, the Global Times English website bravely steps up and gives us the official newspeak on the case with a deranged editorial.

Not so the tensions with the Philippines, where China is engaged in a standoff with the island nation over a chunk of rock in the South China Sea: Xinhua reports:

For nearly a month, Manila has not only turned a deaf ear to Beijing’s position on resolving the dispute over China’s Huangyan Island through diplomacy, but made repeated provocative moves to heighten the tension, severely infringing China’s sovereignty in the process.

It is widely accepted Huangyan Island has been an integral part of China since ancient times, both on a historical and a legal basis. The surrounding waters are China’s traditional fishing grounds and Chinese fishmen have fished there for generations.

The Global Times English and Chinese versions have published an editorial headlined ‘Peace will be a miracle if provocation lasts‘. State and commercial media, newspapers large and small, and all the news and social media websites (e.g. QQ, Sina, Netease) are reporting on the standoff.

Jingoism is by no means limited to the usual pro-government newspapers and media commentators. A browse through the comments on Sina Weibo or any other Internet forum you choose shows overwhelming public support for a war.

On my own Weibo account, I posted the question “Would ordinary people support a war with the Philippines?” Usually the comments on my posts tend be very critical of the government and cynical about China and its place in the world, but the answer to this question was a rather bloodthirsty yes.

The Xinhua piece excerpted above also includes this line:

Furthermore, as some media point out, the Philippines’ tough stance in the recent confrontation with China over Huangyan is an attempt by the administration of President Benigno Aquino III to distract the public and revive its dwindling popularity.

A cynic might observe that this might be the very tactic being pursued by the Chinese government. The chattering classes in my Weibo feed and the garrulous old men I pass every morning in a hutong on my daily bicycle commute were just last week still talking about the fall of Bo Xilai. Today in Beijing, that seems like so much old news.

Update: ShangYang2 on Twitter called the above a ‘naive analysis ignoring China’s intention to challenge the status quo, as its capability increases’. He is right that China is going to challenge the status quo, but I think he’s being naive himself if he thinks the events of the last few months in Chongqing and Beijing have not been a factor contributing to the bellicosity we’re seeing right now.

Sinica: Gutter oil and kind words from City Weekend

The latest Sinica is up: The Gutter Oil Podcast, hosted by Kaiser Kuo with Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times, Sharon LaFraniere of the New York Times, Will Moss, and me.

Also out this week Live From the PRC: China’s Top Podcasts in City Weekend. Editor Lee Mack was kind enough to write:

But without a doubt, though, the award for best China-related podcast goes to the dynamic duo of Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn who host the weekly Sinica podcast

Thanks.